I remarked last week on the re-emergence of the Second World War as a background for combat action dramas. With the premiere of "When Trumpets Fade" on HBO and the upcoming release of Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" it seems that the movies' long (and understandable) fascination with the Vietnam War may at last be showing signs of having passed its peak.
Last time we looked at World War II movies from the forties, made while the war was actually being fought, or shortly thereafter. As varied as we found them to be, these films all shared a sense of immediacy. Notwithstanding the fact that war as a general concept is a timeless theme for drama, these filmmakers never for a moment forgot that they were chronicling a current event of staggering magnitude. It remained for the filmmakers of subsequent decades to bring a sense of perspective to bear on the war. Let's consider, then, some of Hollywood's postwar reflections on World War II. Here are some titles to look for on home video.
"The Longest Day" (1962). Producer Darryl Zanuck mobilized all the resources of the Twentieth Century Fox studio in an ambitious effort to chronicle as faithfully as humanly possible the events of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. The result was a three hour epic with an all-star cast, beginning with John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, and Richard Burton and continuing on from there. This film was, in many ways, a throwback. In old Hollywood, a studio head could lavish time, money, and attention on a pet project, the way David O. Selznick did, for example, with "Gone With the Wind." For Zanuck, one of the last remaining movie moguls from that era, this project represented one last chance to create a noble folly by sheer force of will.
"The Guns of Navarone" (1961). Having gained a bit of historical distance from the grim reality of World War II combat, the movies moved into a period in which the war could be portrayed as the backdrop for thrilling adventure tales. In this often-imitated film, a group of skilled specialists are enlisted to scale an unscalable cliff to destroy a pair of guns mounted in an impregnable fortification. One man is a world-renowned climber, another is a munitions whiz, and still another a mechanical genius. Together, it is hoped that they will be able to achieve the impossible by knocking out this unreachable target. Needless to say, the influence of this film extended all the way to the small screen, inspiring the "Mission: Impossible" television series.
"The Dirty Dozen" (1967). By the late sixties, the movies' view of the war had moved beyond lighthearted adventure all the way to jaundiced cynicism. As in "Navarone," the plot revolves around an impossible mission - to get into a chateau where dozens of high ranking Nazi officers are convened, and to kill as many as possible. But this time, instead of recruiting distinguished experts, we are shown an Allied army that recruits convicted felons, offering them a pardon if they should survive the mission. It is the very antithesis of the portrayals of the essential nobility of the fighting man we saw in last week's films.
"Catch-22" (1970). The logical conclusion of the trend toward cynical portrayals of the war was this film adaptation of Joseph Heller's acclaimed novel. Pushing past mere cynicism into the realm of the absurd, screenwriter Buck Henry and director Mike Nichols render Heller's story as a series of bizarre vignettes. Alan Arkin stars as Captain Yossarian, supported by a constellation of looney characters, each one odder than the last. At the center of it all is the famous paradox that has since entered the language: that you have to be crazy to fly combat missions, so if you ask to be relieved of duty on grounds of insanity it only proves that you're sane.Of course, it wasn't historical distance alone that provoked the progression from grim realism to absurdist cynicism in the portrayal of World War II. By the late sixties it was hard for any war story to avoid being a metaphor for the Vietnam War, no matter which war it purported to chronicle. Now that Vietnam has also receded into history, it will be interesting to see what perspective this year's World War II movies will adopt.